Stay Asleep Please

If you garden in a cold winter climate, as do I, I hope you’re growing figs. Despite being tropical plants, figs are relatively easy for us to grow, as attested to by other gardeners, from Moscow to Montreal, Minneapolis and beyond.

San Piero fig, ripe

San Piero fig, ripe

If you garden in a cold winter climate, I also hope that your fig plant is NOT growing now (unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere). The way we cold-climate fig growers help our plants face winter cold is by protecting them from it. A usual method is to grow a plant in a pot that gets moved to a sheltered location to wait out winter. (Growing in pots plus four other methods of overwintering figs are described in my recent book Growing Figs in Cold Climates.)Fig book cover

Sometimes — too often — a fig jumps the gun on spring and starts growing in its sheltered location. Figs shed their leaves when they feel cold is just around the corner, so don’t need bright light in winter. But once buds awaken, they need all the light it can get.

Fig starting to wake up

Fig starting to wake up

Don’t fool yourself that a sunny window is sufficient light. The light there typically ranges from 2,000 to 5,000 foot-candles, while full sunlight outdoors is over 10,000 foot-candles. With insufficient light, growth becomes etiolated, that is, stretched out and pale as if reaching for light. And when the time comes for the plant to move outdoors, strong sunlight and drying winds will burn those etiolated stems. 

Sleep Recipes

So the goal is to retard growth until outdoor conditions are more fig-friendly. If fully dormant, the plant can tolerate temperatures down into the low 20s Fahrenheit, even colder in a large enough pot. (Cold penetrates more deeply into smaller pots, and fig roots, like those of all temperate-zone plants, can’t tolerate as much cold as stems.)

Fig stems, dormant

Fig stems, dormant

The ideal situation is to be able to move a fully dormant fig plant outdoors while temperatures are still cold, but not cold enough to injure the stems or roots. Then buds gradually unfurl in synch with warming temperatures and increasingly intense sunlight.

My potted plants are fully dormant, the result, all winter, of keeping the pots in a cold room with minimal watering. Ideal winter temperatures for a fig are between the high 20s and low 40s. A barely or unheated garage, a cold basement, an unheated mudroom or attic, perhaps even a shed can all keep a fig asleep long enough.

Most of my plants get watered just once in winter. I lift the pots and can tell by experience from their weight whether water is needed. A soil moisture meter probe also works. They are in humid locations, either in my basement or in a walk-in cooler. Sealing each pot and soil, not the stems, in a plastic bag could cut down or eliminate any need for water.

Only one of my potted figs has already started growing. (I let it do so for this photograph.) My one growing fig is actually doing quite well, with new growth expanding slowly and robustly. Fig stem beginning growthBesides having its thirst quenched just enough to prevent wilting, it sits in front of a large, unobstructed window facing due south in a room whose temperatures range from the 50s and 60s. (That’s why I’m writing while sitting here in a down jacket!)

Shock Treatment

Okay, so you can’t provide ideal enough conditions, and your plant is overenthusiastic about winter’s end. Give it a little shock. Potted figs do need repotting every year or two to refresh soil nutrients and give roots new room to grow. If the plant is in as large a pot as you wish, the root ball needs to be slid out of the pots and sliced back to afford space for fresh potting soil.Repotting The larger the plant, the more roots can be removed. I go around the edge of the root ball with a kitchen knife slicing an inch or two off around the edge of the root ball. That should tell Ms. Fig to chillax!

Stem pruning is another way to put the brakes on growth. And figs anyway benefit from annual pruning. How much to prune depends on the bearing habit of the fig, some varieties bearing best on new growth, some on one-year-old growth, and still others on both types of growth. (I refer you to my book for details about pruning figs.)

Fig fruits developing on new growth

Fig fruits developing on new growth

Not to Worry

Perhaps you haven’t provided ideal winter conditions, you have no sun drenched windows, your home is warm, and you already repotted and pruned last fall. Don’t give up. Worst case scenario is that sappy, etiolated stems have emerged on your fig plant. Once outdoor temperatures moderate, you have three choices. 

Gradually acclimate the plant to the great outdoors in much the same way as is done with tomato seedlings. Start the plant with a week or so in an outdoor location protected from full sunlight, wind, and freezing temperatures, moving it periodically indoors if conditions make it necessary. Gradually move it to the more exposed location of its summer home.

Second choice. Move the plant immediately to its summer home, but prune back growing stems, which, anyway, will likely burn.

Third, and easiest, choice, is to move the plant immediately to its summer home. Period. You’ll see some dieback and burning, but the plant should survive unless it’s very young or very weak.

The nice thing about growing figs, and one of the thinks that makes it possible to grow them in cold climates, is that they are very forgiving plants. More so than you might imagine.Bowl of ripe figs


 Cells Beget Plants, or Animals

   As I strode out to the garden today, the word “totipotency” was forefront in my mind. No, I wasn’t thinking of myself as “all powerful,” which is what totipotent (Latin totus=whole, potent=powerful) might seem to mean.
    Totipotency is the ability of any cell in an organism — you, me, my dog Sammy, my rose bush — to potentially give rise to any other kind of cell of that organism, or to a whole new organism, a clone of the original. Under the right conditions, you could put one of your skin cells in the right environment, and have those cells grow into new skin, toes, eyes — even a whole new you. Fortunately, nobody has yet figured out how to do that with a human.
    (What I wrote is not exactly true. Not every cell within an organism is totipotent. In organisms that reproduce sexually, egg and sperm cells — the germ cells — have only half their complement of genes, so these particular cells can’t be cloned to reproduce non-germ cells or whole organisms.)
    Back to the garden and totipotence . . . Using random plant parts to make whole new plants is nothing new to most gardeners. With stem cuttings, for example, you put a stem into a suitable environment, and it’s induced to grow roots at its base and new shoots, followed by flowers and, perhaps, fruits, above ground. With leaf cuttings, all these new parts spring from a mere leaf.
    Stems and leaves are more than just a few cells. More specialized, but still feasible, is cloning with just a few cells: so-called micropropagation or tissue culture. A few cells are removed, usually from a growing point, and then, under sterile conditions, put into a petri dish containing a medium to supply nutrients and a balance of plant growth hormones. The cells multiply without differentiation into anything special until they are transferred to another medium, this one with an altered balance of hormones, that induces cells to differentiate into leaves and roots. After a period of growth, the plantlets graduate to real soil.
    Micropropagation is a way to create many new, pest-free clones quickly and from a minimum of amount of mother plant.

Apolitical Graft

    My foray into “totipotencing” plants today required pretty much nothing more than pruning shears. I was cutting scion wood, which are stems for grafting onto growing plants. In this case, the growing plants — the rootstocks — provide roots to the clone; the completed plant, from the graft upwards, is the clone, in this case various varieties of pears.

Watersprouts on old apple tree

Watersprouts on old apple tree

    In the past, I’ve done a “Henry IVth” on pear trees whose fruits were not up to snuff, then grafted a more desirable scion on to the decapitated trees. Today’s scions are for grafting onto one-year-old pear seedlings, to make new pear trees. (Not that I need that many pear trees. The grafting will be done by participants at a couple of grafting workshops I’ll be holding this spring. Stay tuned to my website for when, where, and other details.)
    Grafts are most successful with young scions — one-year-old stems, those that grew last season. They come in various sizes, depending on their vigor; pencil-thick is about right. I cut them into foot-long lengths. Watersprouts, those vigorous, vertical branches often appearing in the upper parts of a tree, are good for scionwood, and most, anyway, should be removed.

Pear scions

Pear scions

  The odds for success are also increased if grafting takes place with dormant scions grafted on rootstocks that are either dormant or awakening. That’s why I collected scions today; they’re still dormant, but not for long, outdoors.
    I’ll keep those scions dormant with cold, in the refrigerator or my mudroom (north side of the house, tile floor over concrete).
    Drying out would spell death to the scions, as it would to any living plant or plant part. They need to be kept hydrated, but not in so moist an environment as to cause rotting. So I store them in a plastic bag, around which I wrap a moist towel, and then put the towel-wrapped bag into another plastic bag, well-sealed.

I Was Wrong About Arnold

    I was wrong. Back in December, I wrote, “My Arnold’s Promise witchhazel usually flowers in March. This year’s October flowering means no flowers this coming spring.” Well, it’s March 1st as I write this, and Arnold’s Promise is showered with strappy, yellow blossoms.

Witchhazel's winter flowers and remains of fall flowers

Witchhazel’s winter flowers and remains of fall flowers

    Evidently, not all flower buds slated to open this month opened prematurely, last October. Some did as they are supposed to do: waited. Why? Good question. Looking at the shrub, a location effect does not seem to come into play. Late winter blossoms seem randomly distributed rather than concentrated on older, younger, lower, higher, southern, or northern stems.
    With no explanation coming to mind (yet!), I’ll just relax and enjoy the unexpected show.

Book Giveaway, and Trees Large and Small

A book giveaway, a copy of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Reply to this post with what fruits are most and least successful in your garden or farmden. Also tell us what state you are in (as in NY, OH, CA, etc., not happiness, wistfulness, etc.). I’ll choose a winner randomly from all replies received by March 23rd.
A coming bout of colder weather notwithstanding, my weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) knows and shows that spring is around the corner. Buds along and at the tips of stems are stretching and showing some green of new leaves beneath their folds. I’m called to action.
The reason for this call is that my weeping fig, although it could soar to 75 feet outdoors in tropical climates, is in a small pot being trained as a bonsai. Now that the plant is just about ready to grow is the time to cut it back so that new growth remains proportional to the size of the pot, the roots, and the dictates of design.
At three and a half years old, my tree is only 6 inches high — and I want to keep it that small. Its pot, after all is only 4 inches long by 3 inches wide, and an inch deep.
Before I even get to the stems, I cut off all the leaves. True, this is not good for a plant, but my plant is healthy so can tolerate the stress. I go through the trouble of snipping off each leaf because that dwarfs, to some degree, new leaves that are about to emerge, keeping them more in proportion to the size of the plant.

Whoops, I just checked a book (The Pruning Book by Lee Reich) which states that the leaf pruning is best done after new leaves fully emerge. Oh well, I’ll leaf prune again as soon as the next flush of growth finishes. (Tropical plants, in contrast to plants of cold climates, typically have multiple growth flushes each year.)
With leaves pruned off, time to move on to the roots. Since the plant was last re-potted, a year ago, roots have thoroughly filled the soil in the small pot. There’s little or no room for new root growth, and new roots are the ones that drink in water and what few nutrients are left in the old soil.

The only way to make room for new soil and root growth is to get rid of some old soil and roots. I tease out old soil from among the roots and then prune away about a third of the old roots. With that done, I pack new soil into the pot, just enough to put the plant, with its surface mat of moss still in tow, sitting at the same level as before the root pruning.
The stems need little pruning. I snip off a crossing stem here, one reaching too far over the edge of the pot there, and another that threatens to extend too far skyward. Although stems made little growth over the past year, they, and especially the trunk, did thicken, helping to give the little tree an appearance venerable beyond its years.
I haven’t looked, but my guess is that my fruit trees are also beginning to feel the effects of impending spring. Bouts of warm weather are the driving force in this case. One week we have highs in the ‘teens or twenties, another week highs are in the 40s or 50s. Back and forth through winter.
Plants went into winter well able to resist enticements of warm weather. That’s because until they’ve experienced a certain number of hours at chilly, not frigid, temperatures, they remain dormant and unwilling to grow. Once reaching about 1,000 hours total accumulated exposure to temperatures between 30 and 45°F., they begin to de-harden, that is, become less resistant to cold and more ready to grow.
Plants vary in the number of hours they need to fill their “chilling” bank, some needing a couple of hundred hours, others needing over 1,000 hours. The gut reaction would be to surmise that plants from colder climates would naturally require more chilling hours before they would begin to grow. That’s generally

true, but it ain’t necessarily so. In some very cold regions, spring comes on quickly without looking back, and the growing season is short. Fruit plants adapted to such regions must be ready to grow at the first breath of spring if they’re going to have time to ripen their fruits within the growing season. Just a little chilling at the beginning and/or end of the season is all they need.

With most fruit trees, flowers are the first evidence of awakened growth. But if they open too early, subsequent cold turns their colorful petals to brown mush. Dead flowers also cannot go on to become fruits.
I admit to being somewhat foolish for planting an apricot tree, a tree native to Manchuria, a region that experiences those cold winters and quick, steadily warming springs. The climate here in the Hudson Valley (and over most of continental U.S.), and especially at my less than perfect site for fruit-growing, has a good chance of fooling apricot trees into acting as if cold weather is past long before it actually is. My foolishness won’t be in evidence this year, though, because the tree is still too young to flower.